The nerd factor in the Buegler house is fairly high. (My wife would want you to know that the “nerd gene” is dominant on the male side of the family.)
- At our home, we love any movies or shows where the first word in the title is “Star.” As in “Star Wars…Star Trek…” and so on.
- At our home we make sure we see movies that come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pretty much the week they come out. (If you don’t know what that is…find yourself a nerd and ask. They…we…will be glad to help.)
And as the eldest male, and thus senior nerd in the Buegler home, my favorite book series growing up, and my favorite movie series as an adult, is JRR Tokien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” I love those books and movies. There is one scene in particular that I love. As the trilogy is drawing near to its end, the two hero’s, Frodo and Sam, are climbing Mt. Doom while being hunted by all sorts of nasty creatures. Frodo is carrying the ring of power, with the intent of casting it into the volcano and destroying it. But carrying it has taken a terrible toll on him. Its weight is not physical, it is emotional and spiritual. It has messed with his mind and his heart.
Finally, he collapses on the side of the mountain in pain, sorrow and exhaustion, unable to move. Sam wants to carry it for Frodo…to relieve him of the burden, but he knows he cannot. Frodo has told him, “it is my burden to bear.” Sam looks at his fallen friend, lying moaning on the ground, grasping the ring; he looks up at the mouth of the volcano; and he says “Mr. Frodo, I can’t carry it for you…but I can carry you.” And he hoists Frodo, still grasping the ring, onto his shoulders, and carries him up the side of the mountain.
I love this scene…it is powerful. It is heroic. It is brave. And that line…”I can’t carry it for you…but I can carry you…” Well, it gives me chills.
It gives me chills, not just because it’s a great scene in a great movie, but because it reminds me of moments in my life when it felt like I’d reached the end of my rope. It reminds me of moments when my friends, or my family, carried me through difficult times. Nothing quite so dramatic as the Lord of the Rings (thanks be to God), but still, I have had my moments when I’ve needed to be carried.
The prophet Elijah, in our Old Testament reading, was not carrying a ring of power…he was carrying a message. It was words of warning to the people of Israel. He was warning those who were not following God’s law that there would be consequences to their bad choices. If we rewind the story just a little bit to 1 Kings, chapter 17, Elijah spoke to King Ahab and told them that unless behavior changed, there would be no more rain, not even dew on the grass, until God commanded it. King Ahab was angry with Elijah, so God told him to flee, and to hide. He ran and found safety outside of town, he could get water from a stream, and when he was hungry, God had the birds bring him food.
Elijah then traveled to the town of Zarapeth, and hid there. And there, it was a widow who gave him water and fed him.
In Chapter 18, Elijah finds himself again in conflict with King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel…and in an amazing display of power, fire is called down from heaven and Elijah shows clearly that he follows the one true God, and in that moment, the prophets of the false God, Baal, are captured and killed.
The King and Queen go into a rage, and Elijah again escapes. He runs. He runs for his life. He runs for days. He outruns the soldiers with their horses and chariots…he runs past the point of exhaustion. That leads us to today’s text from 1 Kings, chapter 19. It says that Elijah had kept running until he came to a broom bush, where he collapsed to the ground, and he said “I have had enough, Lord, take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
Elijah had reached his limit. He’d reached the end of his rope. And he was ready to die.
But God wasn’t giving up on Elijah and wasn’t going to let Elijah give up on himself. God sent an angel, who tapped him on the shoulder and said, “get up and eat.” And as if by magic, bread and water appeared. Elijah ate, and then laid down and fell asleep again. A second time, the angel came down, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Get up and eat…for the journey is too much for you.” And Elijah did, and now, strengthened by the meal of bread and water, Elijah began walking. And he walked all the way to Mt. Horab…a journey of 40 days and 40 nights, fueled only by that meal.
Have you ever reached the end of your rope? Have you ever thought that your ability to endure didn’t match up with the amount of challenge left in front of you? I have experienced times when it felt like the difficulties, the challenges were piling on; times where it just felt overwhelming and unfair; times when I’ve said to God, “come on God…enough is enough!”
And my challenges, they pale in comparison to what some have endured.
During the Second World War the US Army was forced to retreat from the Philippines. Some of their soldiers were left behind and became prisoners of the Japanese. The men called themselves “ghosts”, souls unseen by their own nation. On the infamous Bataan Death March, they were forced to walk over 70 miles, knowing that those who were slow or weak would be killed by their captors or die from dysentery and lack of water. Those who made it through the march spent the next three years in a hellish prisoner-of-war camp. By early 1945, only 513 men were still alive at the Cabanatuan prison camp, but they were giving up hope. As the US Army began to make its way back to the Philippines, the Japanese soldiers had begun to eradicate the prisoners, to hide the evidence of their abuse. The US prisoners knew it was just a matter of time. Emotionally…spiritually… physically they gave up. Many just stayed in their bunks…not even trying to get up…just waiting to die.
Their failing hope was, however, met by one of the most magnificent rescues of wartime history. In an astonishing feat 120 US Army soldiers and 200 Filipino guerrillas outflanked 8,000 Japanese soldiers to rescue the POW’s.
Alvie Robbins was one of the rescuers. He describes how he found a prisoner muttering in a darkened corner of his barracks, tears coursing down his face.
“I thought we’d been forgotten,” the prisoner said. “I thought we’d been forgotten.”
“No, you’re not forgotten,” Robbins said softly. “You’re heroes. We weren’t giving up. We’ve come for you. Can you walk?” The prisoner shook his head. And so Robbins picked up the prisoner and carried him. He carried him to medical care, to food, to water…to new life.
In life, things happen. And we can start to give up hope, to feel that God has forgotten us, abandoned us to dark and hurtful experiences. I don’t know when you’ve come to the end of your rope. Perhaps it was when dealing with the loss of a family member, or a long illness. As a pastor, I’ve heard a lot of your stories:
- I’ve spoken with people who were at the end of their rope with their marriage. It had been a struggle, and they just didn’t think they could go any further.
- I’ve spoken with people who were at the end of their rope with a medical issue. The treatment was just too hard, and they didn’t know if they would, or even could, continue.
- I’ve spoken with people at the end of their rope with their job. It just wasn’t fulfilling, and it brought them no joy.
- I’ve spoken with people struggling with an addiction. Things had gotten so bad, they’d lost family and friends, they were bottoming out and were at the end of their rope.
Issues like these…and many more…may have pulled you, or someone you love, into a downward spiral where it is hard to see light.
Whenever I’ve found myself at the end of my limits, God has sent someone…a friend, or a family member, or someone who loves me, to tap me on the shoulder, and to say “Todd, whatever it is you’re carrying, I can’t carry it…but I can carry you.” And then somehow, emotionally, they have walked me through it. When my friend Jim died, it was Chris and Peter. When my Dad died, it was Lori. At age 6, when Sam was in the hospital, it was a whole community of people who rallied around us to provide support.
These people; they picked me up, dusted me off, and gave me the metaphorical bread and water I needed that allowed me to continue.
Jesus calls it “the bread of life.” In our Gospel reading today he says, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” And then Jesus does an amazing thing. He takes it one step further. He says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
“I am the living bread,” Jesus said.
Here’s the thing: Jesus is telling his followers that he is more than merely a rabbi, a teacher…that he is more than a prophet…that he is more than an example of how to live…and that he is not a “savior-at-a-distance.” No, Jesus says that he himself…he is the bread of life.
To receive this gift, we don’t have to do anything more than just accept what Jesus gives. Himself. We eat of the bread. The gift is a constant. Our accepting it or not accepting it does not affect Jesus’ giving it. Quite the opposite in fact: Jesus teaches us in the parables of the lost coin, and the lost sheep that he, the bread of life, seeks us out…pursues us in fact, when we wander. The gift is bread…the gift of new life is given…and the gift is Jesus.
So, on those occasions when you find yourself at the end of your rope…and you will…and you do not have the energy, or the strength, or the courage to go on…remember, you are not alone. Jesus pursues you. And Jesus is the bread of life. Jesus is the bread that lifts us up and cares for us. Jesus reaches down, taps us on the shoulder, and whispers in your ear… ”You may not be able to carry this burden…but I can carry you.”
“I am the Bread of Life.” Take and eat. It is given for you.
Thanks be to God!